This travelogue describes a trip to North Korea (NK) undertaken in March 1995. Present were Paul B., an Australian computer scientist and psychologist; Erwin H., a Dutch UN soldier just back from Bosnia; and Rick B., a roving database administrator currently stationed in Africa. The journey was organised in record time by VNC Travel of Utrecht, The Netherlands (VNC.Travel@inter.nl.net). Cost was about US$900 per person for a week in NK, which included an overnight train between Beijing and Pyongyang, two guides, a minibus, accommodation, attractions, and 3 meals a day. You have to make your own way to Beijing, though.
We were often asked why we were planning a trip to NK. Why would anyone want to holiday in a backward, dour, isolated, run-down extremist country? Both Rick and Paul are communist aficionados, but there's another reason. For the budget traveller, communist countries offer extremely low prices (see also our travelogues on Poland, Czechoslovakia, Moscow and The Baltics), VIP treatment, interesting food, and a chance to experience truly foreign cultures and vistas that haven't (yet) been overrun by Western advertising. For no extra charge, you also get a fascinating insight into one of the major (but doomed) ideological movements of the 20th century: Stalinism. Stalinism acts like a preserving agent, leaving countries like North Korea in pretty much the same state as they were 50 years ago. It's like a trip back in time, but whether it was to 1945 or 1984 we couldn't decide.
It's no longer true that one has to participate in the dubious pleasures of group travel in order to visit places like NK. Individual travel has been a possibility since 1986 and that is why our trip was able to be organised in just a week. The transport and guided tour would have also been supplied even if only one of us had ended up going. It's not certain whether this is optional or compulsory, but it's certainly the easiest way to get around a country about which so little information is available.
We were naturally very pleased to find that we were the only Westerners on the train. None of us knew anyone who'd been to North Korea before, despite requests for information on the Internet. Even our trusty Lonely Planet guidebook had the length of the train trip wrong by some 8 hours - but they admitted that the short chapter on NK was mainly based on one traveller's experiences in 1989. We soon met some North Koreans in the compartment next to ours; their English wasn't half bad, but interestingly enough they didn't seem to know the word `tourist'. They were engaging and friendly to the point of sexual harassment.
The next morning, the sight of a bridge which suddenly ceases halfway across a wide river announced our arrival at the North Korean border. From the train we could already see the slogans, posters and images of the Great Leader that we would encounter wherever we went. The customs officials on the NK side weren't of the gruff countenance I usually associate with Communist border guards, and they took their time thumbing through our Western magazines - stopping to look at cars, nekkid women or anything else that attracted their interest. What they seemed most concerned about was whether any of our maps, books or magazines were published in South Korea. I assume from their level of thoroughness that any such items would've been confiscated. Radios are apparently also a big no-no.
I was asleep when we arrived in Pyongyang and rushed out of the train to find myself wondering if I was still dreaming. The covered platform was a wide, empty, polished concrete affair, with a line of Mercedes Benzs parked down the middle and celestial music emanating from hidden loudspeakers. Our guide had no problem locating us and quickly ushered us through a side exit seemingly reserved for high officials, tourists and other VIPs. The Koreans had to line up, probably to have their internal passports checked to see if they were allowed to enter Pyongyang.
The short drive to the hotel revealed Pyongyang to be more or less as I expected - the Muscovian school of town planning but with less traffic. The cars on the road, old Volvos, Mercedes and various second-hand Japanese cars, were quite an improvement over the preposterous homegrown contraptions the Eastern Europeans used to get around in. When I remarked on this to our guides, they proudly told us NK was about to start producing its own vehicles. They also said that there are no restrictions on car ownership - apart from the purchase price. I don't know if I can believe this (as with many things they told us), but perhaps the difficulty that one would have exchanging worthless won for dollars is a big enough obstacle to explain the lack of traffic.
Most of the buildings that we saw on that short drive were just drab brown rectangular blocks, with the occasional Chinese-roofed structure placed amongst them to great effect. But every now and then we caught a glimpse of a pyramid-shaped, 1000-foot high building rising out of the skyline like a hulking grey Godzilla. We had never heard of, or seen pictures of, this amazing structure, but our guides seemed oddly coy about it. They call it the 105 Building - when completed, it will be the tallest hotel in the world. And this in a city that probably gets as many tourists as Chernobyl. When pressed, the guides disclosed that construction had started in 1987. Eight years later, it's still nowhere near finished. Apparently scurrilous tongues in the West (and the South) have been suggesting that the structure is unsound, so we were forbidden to photograph it up close.
We were somewhat dismayed to have read that our Hotel Haebangsan was a C-class hotel, the only one of its sort open to foreigners. However, I've seen some ratholes in my time so I'm easily pleased. It was quite adequate, with our only complaints being the lack of hot water early in the morning and the height of some of the doorways. We even had a TV in one of our rooms. There were only two channels (three on Sundays), which both stopped broadcasting around 10 pm. Not a great loss, as the style and presentation had "state television" written all over it. Typical offerings were soapies set during the Korean War, documentaries on the Great Leader (featuring an excited yet breathless narrative style) and musical interludes by a military band.
Our guides took us downstairs to the dark dining room, and left us to eat at a table by ourselves - something that would happen nearly every meal on the whole trip. We found it strange at first, but were grateful for it later as otherwise we'd be spending every waking hour with them. It also gave us a chance to laugh, grumble and talk about what we'd seen without inadvertently insulting our hosts. The meals we were served were far better than one would expect in a country with severe food shortages. There were often 6 or more dishes brought out at a time, with rice, soup, chicken, beef, spicy fish and pickles. Not bad, but not great either.
After dinner we went with our guides to a bar upstairs for a better introduction. Guide No. 1 was 31, but years of nicotine addiction made him look about 42. Kids who smoke in order to appear older will certainly have no cause for complaint later in life. G1's English was passable, but nowhere as good as Guide No. 2's, a 28-year old graduate of the Tourism Academy who naturally has never been to an English-speaking country. After establishing our ages and marital status (a high priority in status-conscious Korea), the foremost question on their minds was who the leader of our group was. We took turns, just to confuse them.
Later we informed our hosts that we wanted to take a walk through nighttime Pyongyang. They assured us that we were allowed to venture out alone but G1 convinced us to let him come along so we wouldn't get lost, and so he could give some explanations. The streets were cold, dark and deserted, lit only by the neon slogans on the larger buildings. There was no Western advertising to be seen, and I'm hard pressed to think of any other capital city in the world where this would be the case. After a short stroll we arrived in Kim Il Sung square, and I knew I had arrived at the dead heart of the world's last Stalinistic country. Lenin, Marx, and (of course) the Great Leader smiled down upon a large square bathed in neon and deserted except for us and some roller-skating children. There was virtually no traffic to be seen or heard.
Across the river from the square is the kitschy Juche Tower, a symbol of their ideology of self-reliance. In fact, the Chinese pulled their chestnuts out of the fire in the Korean War, and the Soviet Union then bankrolled the whole operation until it, itself, collapsed. At least these days the North Koreans are getting an opportunity to put their self-reliance to the test - with some help from the nominally still Communist China. There are signs of hard times everywhere: the air is polluted from the burning of coal for power, previously forbidden bicycles have made a reappearance on Pyongyang's streets, towns in the countryside appeared to be lit only by candlelight, and in museums the fluorescent lights are extinguished every time you exit a room.
At the birthplace and childhood home of the Great Leader, just outside Pyongyang, I managed to upset our local guide by asking her if it was true that the Dear Leader (Great Leader's son) was actually born in the Soviet Union (as I'd read in the West), and not on top of a holy Korean mountain, as they prefer to believe. Vicious lies, she assured me. Back in Pyongyang, next to the Arch of Triumph (3m higher than the one in Paris) we saw and photographed a large group of schoolchildren synchronized gymnastics. Our guides told us it was for a coming festival, but it seemed strange that we saw this nearly everywhere we went, and at all times of the day. Surely the energy crisis isn't that severe?
On our way to the May Day stadium, with seating for 200,000 and a titanium roof, we saw some road construction going on with people in suits and ties moving rocks by hand. Our guides explained that the Dear Leader had commanded that this project - the construction of a bridge and overpass in the center of Pyongyang - must be finished within a year, so people were spontaneously turning up to help in any way they could; one of our guides had even worked on it himself!
The best was kept for last as we afterwards visited the People's Army Circus, which is housed in a large, circular, immaculate marble-ish building. Upon entering, we were treated to the amusing spectacle of the whole circus audience turning their heads as one to stare at the foreigners. It made a great photo! Eastern circuses have a high level of acrobatics, which is always great to watch, but they also had the inevitable animal acts - horses, boxing bears and even dogs doing tricks. The clowns came on dressed as clumsy South Korean soldiers, but the subsequent clownesque portrayal of an American soldier (complete with blond hair, sunglasses, big nose and swaggering walk) shall remain with me forever.
North Korean propaganda portrays South Korea as a brother country under the yoke of Yankee imperialism. Our guides (rhetorically) asked us more than once what business the Americans had down there, preventing Korea from reuniting as one happy nation. Reunification is a hot issue in North Korea, where the Dear Leader has repeatedly said that it shall happen before the end of this decade. Many in the West would agree with him, but maybe not in the way that he envisions it.
The landscape was brown, dusty and hilly - not unlike inland Australia or central California. The countryside was dotted with ramshackle little villages. We noted that every village had at least one large red hillside slogan placed nearby, so that the residents couldn't help but get one dose of propaganda a day. Even out in the country.
The DMZ - a demilitarized zone 2km each side of the border - wasn't particularly impressive as they naturally weren't going to drive us past any places of military interest. We spotted the huge opposing flagpoles with the 2 Korean flags, and heard the thunderous music being broadcast from the NK side. The treaty village of Panmunjom inside the DMZ is a fascinating place: there the North and South stand literally face to face on an unfenced border. The tourists on either side also stand face to face, but unfortunately there weren't any on the South side that day. According to Lonely Planet, if you want to visit Panmunjom from the South you have to book way in advance, lay down big bucks, and be subjected to all sorts of clothing restrictions (including: no jeans or runners - exactly what we were wearing). We were given a personal guided tour by one of the soldiers, who took us into one of the seven huts that exactly straddle the border. Inside, we were invited to sit at a negotiating table that itself also straddles the border! In this hut we could cross the most heavily guarded frontier on earth by just walking around a table. As we were about to leave, a US soldier sauntered up to the borderline outside the hut and stared at the North Koreans from behind his sunglasses in a manner that they certainly seemed to find provocative - even though they also had a soldier positioned less than an inch from the line on our side.
On the drive down, I had asked our guide what would happen if I walked over into the Southern side at Panmunjom. He assured me I would be shot. But by who? "The Americans".
Our guide then took us to a number of buildings and gave us the North's view of history - that they had been attacked in 1950, that the Americans constantly violated treaties by bringing weapons into the DMZ, and that the `Hatchet Incident' (in which an American soldier was hacked to death with a North Korean axe) was a case of justifiable self defense. The soldier denied that NK had the fifth-largest army in the world and that it consisted of 1 million troops. If I'd mentioned it, he would no doubt have denied that the North had often been caught tunneling under the border.
It was a very interesting visit, and as we left we were requested to make a brief statement (this was often asked of us - you have to think fast and be very diplomatic!). We assured our hosts that we shared their wish for a speedy reunification with the South.
After negotiating the price (a hefty US$20 each) the guides agreed to take us to a canine canteen that night. It seems that Koreans don't regard dogs as pets, unlike almost every other culture I know of. Dogs are used as work animals on farms (these supply the restaurants) and as gourmet delicacies, but apparently no-one keeps them domestically. They are so rare that even the Pyongyang zoo has a dog section with 20 different breeds of hound to amaze and amuse the local populace. Imagine lining up to see a labrador.
Koreans actually consider dogs an expensive and healthy delicacy, sorta like how the Chinese consider turtles. Local wisdom says that eating one dog a year keeps sickness at bay, and in winter it is thought to be equivalent to wearing an extra coat against the cold.
At about 7pm that night we found ourselves being taken along the darkened Reunification Street - a suburb full of high-rise housing but with surprisingly few lights on. I asked the guide why so few flats were illuminated, and he replied that, being a Saturday night, everyone was out visiting their family! This seemed like a ludicrous explanation to me at the time, but I suppose it makes sense: they were probably visiting relatives who lived in a part of town that was receiving the electricity ration that night. The high-rise suburbs are connected to the city centre by huge thoroughfares - one even being 13 lanes wide - but I was unable to spot any parking garages amongst the buildings.
In the middle of this concrete canyon the van pulled over, and we were hustled into a low concrete building. Passing by a small bar and shop counter, we scaled the stairs and walked into a dimly lit room. It turned out to be one of those combined dog restaurant / karaoke bars, with flashing multi-coloured lights, a mirrored disco globe hanging from the ceiling, a large karaoke machine containing (only) heroic Korean folk songs, and a stylised night-scape of the skyline of Pyongyang. This is easily the freakiest restaurant I have ever visited.
Without much ado the waitress started bringing out the dog meat. First we had dog backbone, where the meat was so tender you could peel it off with a fork. Juicy, and very nice. It reminded me a bit of venison. Next came dog ribs, with significantly less meat on them. Also tasty. The guides were snickering amongst themselves and watching us with great interest. "You like?". The waitress came out and asked our guides if the foreign devils realized what they were eating. The guide played along with the gag and said: "No; they think it's deer. Don't let on!" They told us a story of how they'd been there before with two German couples, and the men had insisted that the women not be told what they were eating - until they were at the airport a few days later. Their wives attempted to expel all the dog meat left in their systems, right there on the airport floor.
The guides showed us from pictures what sort of canine is considered a comestible in Korea; it looked a bit like Lassie. I'd heard once that the dogs are killed in an exceptionally cruel manner in order to give the meat its proper texture, but I preferred not to think about this as I tucked into my Pyongyang Pooch.
The guides' snickering and guffawing reached a crescendo as the next portion of the meal was brought out. "This is the essence of the restaurant, the essence", they kept repeating, "You must eat this essential part most of all". They mysteriously called it "middle leg" but we soon figured out what it was. The shape was unmistakeable. As if on cue, a drunken Korean jumped up from the next table and started belting out a patriotic folk song on the karaoke machine. Was it all a dream?
After the penis, the K9 soup was served. Very spicy and quite tasty, but by this stage we were getting tired of eating nothing but hound. The soup was accompanied by a small bowl of red paste, which we were told to mix in with the soup. This turned out to be dog-brain puree. As a reward for licking our plates clean we were given a complimentary serving of sweet dog-tongue dessert. Afterwards I started to feel a bit queasy (must have been the karaoke) but Erwin patted his belly and declared the meal "doggone good".
The IFE gets rather tedious rather quickly (most gifts are numbingly mundane - letter openers, ghetto blasters, chairs), but it is worth seeing just for the fleet of black bulletproof 1950's sedans (a gift from Stalin) and to check out what honours YOUR country has bestowed upon a ruthless dictator. We reluctantly agreed to bow to the statue of the Great Leader, but drew the line at the Dear Leader.
During this outing we also visited some nearby mountains where I marvelled at the sight of a frozen waterfall and Erwin was divebombed by a white eagle. Some very organised vandals had painted a large portrait of the Great Leader and one of his inimitable sayings on one of the rock faces. We also viewed some relics from Korea's more distant history, but most of these were replicas due to the mass devastation of the Korean War.
As the trip progressed we started talking more and more politics with our guides. We thought that the 3 of us were allocated 2 guides just so that they could keep tabs on each other, but even when we got them alone they would still never stray even an inch from the party line. Not so surprising in a society where political correctness is a matter of personal safety, but after a while I started to believe that they believed these obvious untruths they were expounding. For us in the West it's difficult to imagine a country with no serious crime, no poverty, no AIDS, no prostitutes, no homosexuals and no women who smoke, but maybe not so for people who have been told this all their lives - and don't have access to foreign magazines and newspapers. At the Grand People's Study House in Pyongyang, which we also visited, locals have to register with name and address in order to just look at a book. When we requested to see some foreign newspapers (to look up a football result!) they said that yes, of course, they had them but no, we couldn't see them.
Our guide was a bit surprised when we first asked to alter our itinerary to include the War museum, as few Western tourists ever express any interest in it. However, I believe that to understand North Korea you have to have some appreciation of the war, and especially of the North Korean interpretation of it. Everywhere you go in NK you see references to it: statues, sculptures, monuments, cemeteries, paintings, postage stamps. And these weren't produced 40 years ago; there is still a flourishing industry in them today. For instance, one of the sites we visited was a `Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery' established in 1982! War dead from all over NK - some of which had been RIP'ing for more than 40 years - were dug up and brought there, to be given a handsome marble headstone and a life-size bronze torso bust on a piece of real estate with the best view of Pyongyang that money can't buy. For a country in such dire economical straits, there must be a reason why they spend so much time, effort and emotion on keeping alive the memory of a war that started in 1950 and effectively ended just one year later.
The War Museum in Pyongyang serves to promulgate the North Korean version of the war. We were met by a stout museum guide who, like almost all of her colleagues in NK, spoke no English (our guides translated) and seemed to be delivering a memorized monologue. The tour took about 2 hours, but I think it could've easily have been shortened to one hour if they just said 'Kim Il Sung' instead of `The Supreme Leader Generalissimo Kim Il Sung' and `America' instead of `The Imperialist American Aggressor'.
One of our first stops was an entertaining light-animated map that showed the seesawing nature of the war. In the NK history books, it was the Americans who struck first, launching a sneak attack on Sunday June 25. To put it mildly, this seems unlikely. The North Koreans claim that the Americans poured military hardware into South Korea for years and then launched a surprise imperialist attack on the peaceful and defenseless North Korean peasants who were busy out tending their rice paddies. It was strange to see, then, that according to their map, the well-prepared American attack was halted by said peasants after progressing just a few miles over the border. The 'counter attack' had the victorious North Korean forces in Seoul by Wednesday. The museum proudly houses the first tank that entered Seoul - a Russian T-34!
When I remarked to the guide that this accomplishment seemed `incredible', she smiled and thanked me.
We were then led from room to room, each detailing a different aspect of the war (e.g., the exploits of artillery men, mountain warfare, etc.) I noticed that every room had at least two huge paintings of the Great Leader participating actively in every aspect of the war. Sometimes there were as many as 4 paintings.
Another highlight was a battle panorama set up like one of those fancy electric train model landscapes. It told of the heroic exploits of the North Korean truck drivers who managed to ferry supplies over frozen mountains under incessant American attack. In another incredible episode, a destroyed wooden bridge halted their progress. The peasants from a nearby town volunteered to rebuild the bridge by standing underneath it, hoisting the scattered logs onto their backs, and letting the trucks drive over them!
The adjacent room was dedicated to heroic North Koreans. One unfortunate lady had had both her breasts ripped off by Americans, but soldiered on regardless. A gunner lost both his arms, but managed to keep slaying the Yankee dogs by firing with his chin (quite impressive, considering the enormous kick of those guns).
It was hard to judge the truthfulness of many of the episodes recounted in the museum. On the face of it, some seemed possible (e.g., that the Americans tried germ warfare, dropping infected vermin on the hapless North Koreans), but I found that their credibility was severely hampered by the many obvious fabrications. For example, there was a photo of American soldiers in a trench, where someone had clumsily painted frowns on the Americans' faces. "They miss their mommies", our guide said when we exploded into laughter on seeing it. What is the point of such nonsense? The fact that such a photo can remain on display shows the lack of internal criticism or free thinking.
The basement of the museum houses a collection of hardware from the war - gleaming tanks, fighters and weaponry from the North Korean side, contrasted with rusting, damaged planes, helicopters and tanks from the UN - sorry, the Americans (as the North Koreans always insist).
The final room we visited was devoted to American atrocities. Shooting women and children, executing prisoners, torture, chemical warfare, germ warfare, you name it. In Simchon, a city to the south of Pyongyang, they have a whole museum devoted to this tasteful topic. Interestingly, the Americans counter-accuse the North Koreans of atrocities in the same city so there must be something to the story.
Today we were visiting the School Children's Palace in Pyongyang, where talented children could participate in after-school activities. I found this idea of voluntary participation a bit out of step with what I'd seen so far, and separate questioning of the guides failed to reveal whether this institution was for all kids or not, and whether attendance was optional. The Palace was certainly magnificently maintained and well equipped, with an impressive theatre and a large indoor swimming pool. The 10-metre dive tower even had a glass elevator.
We were taken for a brief visit to a classroom where we saw children playing accordions, for goodness' sake. They all smiled and looked happy, but the suffering that room must have seen is unimaginable. We were then rushed on to the theatre, where our entrance was greeted with a thunderous applause by the school-age audience. They do this just to impress foreigners, I'm sure, and it certainly worked! The show cute, but I was suddenly reminded of the performing animals at the Circus and wondered how long it had taken to etch the frozen smiles onto these young faces. We saw 5-year-olds playing violin, and other obvious examples of child abuse.
North Korea was easily one of the most interesting trips we have ever made. We can recommend it to anyone, as our guides earnestly hoped we would (we told them we would be posting a travelogue on the 'net). There seems to be little of the apathy of the Eastern European regimes that turned those countries into garbage heaps even before they collapsed. The streets really are spotless in Pyongyang (okay, you'll find the occasional scrap of paper) and the guides are friendly, extremely helpful and informative - we could, and did, ask them anything.
North Korea is in big economical trouble, as the recent acceptance of aid from South Korea and Japan surely demonstrates (not that they deny that they are a "developing" country). Russia is no longer interested in supporting Communist regimes and China doesn't seem to be too generous lately either. Like the Soviet Union and East Germany, if this country collapses then it will simply cease to exist. You'd better hurry if you want to experience this fascinating historical oddity before it disappears forever.
Comments are welcome - especially from Koreans!
Paul & Rick Bakker
Copyright 1995 - Paul Bakker